Technology has been an inherent part of human civilization and now we are making quantum leaps in Artificial Intelligence. It may be defined as the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.
With Alexa and Google Home becoming an integral part of our everyday lives, we are only seeing one side of the coin. The other side is occupied in a global arms race of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). LAWS or killer robots are, as the name suggests, a type of military robots that can independently or autonomously search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions.
According to many experts, LAWS are creating a ‘Third Revolution’ in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear weapons.
Israel's Iron Dome (Source)
Israel’s Iron Dome, South Korea’s SGR-1 Sentry Boot and the US Navy’s X-47B Drone are proof of the arms race being very real. Simple autonomous functions such as homing and navigation first emerged around the 1960-70s. But it was the surveillance drones of the 1990s that gave way to remotely controlled armed drones used for counterterrorism efforts after 9/11.
US Navy's X-47B (Source)
In any case, the threat of completely autonomous weapon systems is far into the future. However, these weapons, once developed and declared fully functional, would inadvertently increase military superiority of any State and thus guarantee its security to some extent, much like the nuclear deterrence policy of Nuclear Weapons States. No wonder Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, leading a team of 116 experts, are (were) calling for an outright ban of killer robots. In response, the UN- and particularly the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons- is struggling to come up with a framework guiding the development of AI-powered killer robots for the superpowers, and progress is promised with focus on giving humans final authority over any life and death situation.
Pros of autonomous weapons system:
- Force multipliers: LAWS can operate faster than humans with increased accuracy and efficiency. Autonomous systems can lethally strike even when communication links have been severed, which make them more effective in battle than human-in-the-loop systems.
- Reduced risk of human loss: With machines doing the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work, there is no need to put human soldiers directly in harm’s way. Roboticist Ronald C. Arkin believes that with advanced deep learning, autonomous robots in the future will be able to act more “humanely” on the battlefield.
- Perfect soldiers: Furthermore, the killer robots won’t be stirred by emotions and sentiments like hysteria, fear, ambition, etc. In other words, they would be perfect soldiers. Also, the precision of killer robots could keep hostages safer if targets can be selected and engaged perfectly.
Cons of autonomous weapon systems:
- Unpredictable interactions: Facebook had to shut down two of its chatbots because they developed their own language for interacting with each other. Additionally, the interaction between LAWS and humans cannot be predicted with precision, such as in cases when combatants surrender.
- Issues of accountability: In case the autonomous system malfunctions, who must be held accountable? Since the killer robots may violate human rights, cyber laws, etc., the lack of accountability or responsibility would complicate delivery of justice. The LAWS may operate contrary to the International Humanitarian Law and this poses a graver threat to the entire human race.
With these pros and cons in mind, the ICRC and other international organizations are working to make the research and development of autonomous weapon systems out of the hands of terrorists and violent extremists. Most of the world leaders advocate for human control over all such weapons and methods of warfare that involve autonomy in machines.